I don't like writing reviews for movies like The Dark Knight, because what can I add to the conversation? What can I do other than agree with all the other raves?
Yes, Christopher Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan have matched the excellence of their earlier Batman Begins. Yes, it's good that they got rid of Katie Holmes, the only weak actor in the first film, and replaced her with the more appealing Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yes, the cast is all fine, especially Gary Oldman - who knew he could play kindly and heroic so well? - and Michael Caine, who is arguably doing his best work now in his late career.
And yes, Heath Ledger as Batman's arch-enemy the Joker absolutely steals the show. His smeared makeup and stringy hair may not be the tidy-looking Joker we all remember (though he's still a snappy dresser), but his performance defines the character. This is how the Joker should be: terrifying, unpredictable, and completely off his rocker. And yes, it's a sad reminder of the late Ledger's prodigious talents, and how contemporary cinema has lost one of its finest actors all too soon. Fortunately, his death doesn't distract from his performance.
So how can I differentiate my review? Well, I'll start by saying that, while this may be the second best superhero film I've ever seen (Richard Donner's 1978 Superman is still my favorite), I don't think it's perfect: Aaron Eckhart, as the doomed Harvey Dent, creates a strong character, but he overdramatizes his dialogue a bit (well, this is a comic book movie). A subplot involving Chinese money launderers and a side trip to Hong Kong adds little. And finally, Hans Zimmer's hard-rockin' score in the film's first half is no match for the later orchestrations of the great James Newton Howard. Those are my complaints. But they are few.
I have another note: Am I imagining things, or was the Gotham City of Batman Begins more production designed, filled with more CG buildings and such? The Dark Knight's Gotham looks like an undoctored Chicago - where the movie was shot. That's fine by me, by the way. I just can't reconcile the two films' different settings, though I do like the added realism of the normal-looking city.
The Dark Knight is a perfectly crafted summer action picture, rich with character and depth, and as with the first film, I appreciate the Nolans' ability to make their story feel big: compare the finale of Iron Man, which is essentially just two guys occasionally stumbling into traffic with a girl nearby, with The Dark Knight's ethics-fueled third act, where the lives of hundreds are quite palpably at stake. The very large roster of bit players gives the film that 1970s big-city feel, which is quite welcome.